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The Future of the Internet: Going Public

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The good folks over at Internet Evolution recently invited me to join in a discussion about what's in store for the series of tubes bringing you this post.

While I can't honestly claim to be among "the Internet's leading minds," as the site proclaims, I put forward an idea that's radical in its simplicity.

Let's ask the public what they think.

I don't mean a poll on Mac vs. PC, Google vs. Yahoo, or Coke vs. Pepsi. I'm talking about a fundamental and truly public conversation about how the future of the Internet should look.

For decades, the crucial decisions that shape the Internet have been made behind closed doors by high-priced lobbyists and ill-informed politicians with little or no public involvement. Surely Congress could agree to hold public forums -- online and off -- in every state, if not every district, before making the monumental decisions that will shape the Internet for a generation.

You can pretend the government doesn't matter, that technology alone will magically set us free. But if you want the most revolutionary forum for free speech, democratic participation, and economic innovation to prosper, you'd better have a seat at the table when those rules are being written.

Currently, the United States is 15th in the world in broadband penetration and slipping: The Japanese are rolling out high-speed Internet that's 30 times faster than what you can get here; and compared to the Scandinavians, our cellphones look as if they were made by Fisher-Price.

Why are we falling so far behind? Bad policies.

In 2006, Congress came within a hair's-breadth of passing a sweeping and dangerous overhaul of the nation's telecommunications laws that was largely written by AT&T. Among other things, that legislation would have permanently eliminated Network Neutrality -- the "First Amendment of the Internet" that prevents ISPs from discriminating against Web content or services based on their source, ownership, or destination.

This massive boondoggle was stopped by an unprecedented public outcry, spurred by an unlikely coalition that brought together and the Christian Coalition, Google's Vint Cerf and the Gun Owners of America, the ACLU and the American Library Association. (It didn't hurt when U.S. Senator Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), the architect of the legislation, was caught on tape ranting that the Internet was "not a truck.")

But even at the height of the Net Neutrality fight, most of our leaders in Washington had no idea what they were voting on. Given the magnitude of these decisions, you'd expect our leaders to actually go out and ask their constituents what they think. But most didn't even take a public position before the vote.

The lobbyists for the big phone and cable companies benefit from keeping us in the dark. They claim this stuff is too complex for us simpletons to comprehend. Leave it to the experts, they say. And here's what we get in return: censorship, throttling, blocking, walled gardens, slow speeds, and high prices.

I know what you're thinking: He wants more regulation. (Cue the ominous music and visions of the Gulag.) But the fact is that we're gonna have rules. The question is: Who they will benefit? We know Comcast and AT&T will get their wish-lists in front of the decision-makers. What about the rest of us?

As a first step, how about actually forcing elected officials and federal regulators to leave the Beltway, go out across the country, and ask the people what they want? I suspect their answers will look a lot different than the ones you'll hear in the corporate suites and at D.C. cocktail parties.

Here are a few questions to get things started: How do we protect free speech and open access on all networks? Why don't we have more choices and real competition? Why are we falling behind Denmark and South Korea? What will it take to bring the benefits of broadband to everyone?

Not everyone will agree, of course. Maybe your list of concerns is different. But let's at least have the debate in the light of day.

I've got my own priorities (starting with Net Neutrality), but I'll settle for opening up the conversation to genuine public involvement -- you know, democracy -- and letting the chips fall where they may.

(Thanks to Internet Evolution for permission to cross-post here.)